Why is Selling Bottled Tap Water Odd?

Lynne Kiesling

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler notes that someone is purifying, bottling, and selling New York City tap water, at a price lower than competitors. He then observes “I suspect this will seem odder to you, the older you are.”

I have never understood why so many people find the idea of selling bottled tap water “odd”. When you buy bottled water, you aren’t just buying water, you’re also buying three other features: portability, convenience, and some quality assurance. Portability is obvious. Convenience arises as a value when shops selling water are more widespread and accessible than water fountains. Quality assurance matters if you are concerned about whether impurities or minerals from the pipes affect the content or taste of the water.

So when you buy bottled tap water, you aren’t paying for water, you’re paying for portable, accessible water of a particular quality. How is that odd?

Relatedly, David Zetland has a recent post on the economics of the airport security water ban. Even if you can bring an empty water bottle through security, finding water fountains in terminals is difficult, and warm water in bathroom sinks deters filling your bottle there. Consequently, sales of bottled water in terminals increase. His punch line:

The costs of the ban on liquids are falling on customers; the benefits are falling on airports, vendors and bottled water companies. With these incentives — and lobbying realities — we are unlikely to ever see a return to the good old days (allowing people to carry water). I guess that the terrorists have won 🙁

3 thoughts on “Why is Selling Bottled Tap Water Odd?

  1. Tyler isn’t old enough. The earliest bottled water was popular b/c tap water was dangerous 🙂

    You’re right about why we buy bottled…

  2. Funny thing, tap water in Germany has usually the same grade and quality as Bonaqua drinking water and thus would really fit the category for reselling. Thus the local distributer (Stadtwerke) has forbidden the re-selling of their water in their contracts with consumers. I don’t know if this is the same in NYC, but it is fairly standard in Europe. The local distributer don’t want to get into competition with the big bottled water companies or want to retain the privilege to do so.

    However, I find this very confusing, because technically, if I would evaporate the water and then condensate the steam, it would be “new water” and the company couldn’t claim any property rights, or otherwise the water distributors would surely own each other’s water….

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